#EUref A Historian’s Perspective

I am making a once in a lifetime exception to my self-imposed embargo on blogging about politics or religion, on a day that I feel may be marked by the historians of the future as a memorable day. Undoubtedly today is a watershed, perhaps a watershed on the scale of the Norman Conquest, Henry VIII’s capricious decision to divorce Anne Boleyn, or the loss of America as a colony. You are probably aware that these were not events that resulted in peace, prosperity and religious freedom for all. Whether today will be memorable for good or ill remains to be seen. In a recent Facebook post, I referred to one of the historical quotations that adorn the headers and footers of my website. Now I would like to draw your attention to the one at the top of the home page, George Santayana’s ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it’. Time will tell quite what we have condemned ourselves to fulfil in the wake of the whole referendum debacle. I am not writing this as a passionate advocate or adherent of either ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. To be so would be to ignore the all too apparent flaws in one scenario or the advantages of the other. As the campaigns lurched uncertainly into action I sat firmly on the fence. I tried, I really tried, to balance emotional gut reaction with economic reality. Both sides bombarded us with rhetoric, invective and contradictory information. As a historian, I am all too aware of propaganda and spin and we had both in good measure. My working life requires seeking evidence, verifying sources but it seemed that, for much of the information, there was none. It all boiled down to a frying pan – fire decision. The EU is clearly restrictive and broken but the isolationist alternative was fraught with uncertainty and bigotry.

I am actually not so concerned about the outcome of the vote, hardly the overwhelming endorsement some would have us believe. In the end, after much thought, the ‘winner’ wasn’t actually the outcome that attracted my X in the box but that is largely immaterial; I could see pros and cons to both options. My fear, concern and profound sadness today is because the campaign has been accompanied by so much intolerance, bigotry and downright hatred. No one, on either side of this deeply divisive debate, can feel that the run up to what some are terming ‘Independence Day’ has been anything but dirty. The prejudice and fanaticism has been fueled and proliferated by that double-edged sword, social media. Even people I believed to be perceptive have seemed to accept what was clearly errant nonsense as the inveterate truth.

I can respect anyone who cast their vote, in either direction, following thought and deliberation. Sadly many have voted on the basis of scaremongering, or have made their choice because of the alleged charisma of the leading advocates of one cause or the dislike of those fronting the other. Unsupported statements have been hurled by both sides, things got personal, childish, ridiculous. Where was the evidence? The convincing data? Twentieth century political history has never been my favourite period but it doesn’t take an historian to draw the parallels that have already been drawn with the blinkered adulation of Herr Hitler, who was hailed as the saviour of post world war I Germany. He was going to make Germany great. It seemed such a good idea at the time. Now are we heading for our own hate-fuelled Kristallnacht or have the ultra right-wing, who tarnished others who believed ‘Leave’ was the right option, been placated by today’s result? If so, for how long?

I can’t help feeling that those claim that Brexit is the solution to all our problems are being blinded by euphoria. Leave or Remain – either route would have been beset with uncertainty, faction and the need for hard work and compromise. The divisions in our country have become a chasm and it is far from being over yet. There is a mutual back-patting amongst those in the Leave camp and talk of ‘getting our country back’. Beware of what you wish for. We have not ‘got back’ the country of the halcyon pre EU days. Days which lie largely in the imagination. The country we have ‘got back’ is a shadow of its former self; diminished by what will inevitably and understandably be the defection of Scotland. A country fractured by the attitude that those of different opinions, cultures and faiths are somehow of less value. A country where distorted stereotypes are applied to those of a particular ethnicity, belief or sexuality. A country where political hatred sees the murder of a woman who was working for what she believed to be the greater good. A country that seems to have forgotten the concepts of compassion, of compromise, of caring. As for one gloating Leave activist who commented that we had won the country back without a shot being fired, insensitively ignoring Jo Cox’s murder, in one respect he is right, a war has been created. War is never pretty, there are no winners and we can only speculate on who will be the casualties that Brexit and the aftermath will leave in its wake.

If the new Britain, for it will be many decades before it can become Great, is to work it will need every iota of forgiveness and fortitude that we can muster. We will have to learn to accept others who are outside our comfy ‘exactly like us’ sphere and learn to work in harmony. We need to stop moaning about what is wrong and strive to put it right. America is no longer the land of the free, Britannia has long since ceased to rule the waves. World events of the past weeks are destroying people’s faith in humanity. However much you wanted to leave the EU, this is not a time for unadulterated elation. When cloud nine bursts it will become clear that we are embarking on a hazardous journey without sat-nav, survival kit and for some, without a moral compass. We may have done the right thing, this may be an unremitting disaster, while it all unravels and it become clear which of those alternatives is the actuality, the UK needs the healing balm of kindness, understanding and forbearance.

Rant over. If anything is ever normal again normal service will resume shortly.


The Land of the Hoggs, more Ornithological Ramblings and Sunshine!

We have chosen today to drive through the striking Northumbrian countryside to one of my favourite places on earth. The visibility isn’t bad and it isn’t raining, this must count as summer. We drive along the back roads with the Cheviots as a backdrop but the Otterburn Ranges are being just that, shooting ranges, so, not wanting to be shot, we skirt the Northumberland National Park. A note for my Australian readers, unlike Australia, who seem to call any public open space a National Park, in the UK it has to be something seriously special to be awarded that status. This area is spectacular and Northumberland has to be one of the most beautiful counties if you like wide open expanses and a raw kind of beauty and I do. You will not find comfy chocolate-box scenery here but skies stretch forever and the sheep on the rocky outcrops are looking decidedly dishevelled in the period between lambing and shearing. I sometimes wonder if there is some weird genetic memory at work that attracts me to certain places. My great grandfather, John Hogg and his ancestors came from these wild outlying hillsides between Hadrian’s Wall and the Scottish border, before moving in to Morpeth.

443 Thockrington 2 June 2016We are heading for Thockrington where the Hogg family lived in the eighteenth century. I am 99% certain that my great great grandfather was baptised here. The grain of doubt comes from the fact that gg grandfather changed his age and birth place at every conceivable opportunity and even swaps John for George on one occasion. Despite having two ‘wives’ one of whom he acquired during the period of civil registration (whoopee, a marriage certificate with a father’s name you’d think) no marriage records have been found. Anyway back to Thockrington. This is an amazing place with views that are virtually unchanged since the Hoggs were here (as long as you stand with your back to the wind turbines). Here you are on top of the world, absolutely the right place to build a church and a truly spiritual place, whatever higher being you might subscribe to. I maintain that everyone should visit here but not all at once, obviously and not when I am here. If you take my advice be prepared for driving a fair way along single track road, possibly across cattle grids, depending on your direction of approach, driving through a farmyard and finding a church, a farm and absolutely nothing but awe inspiring scenery as far as you can see in all directions. Do it, it is worth it. Just to add to the glory the sun comes out.

We drive back through the ruggedly picturesque Great Bavington, which is probably where the Hoggs lived, whilst being baptised and buried in Thockrington; Bavington is a hamlet and not a parish in its own right. Bavington boasts the oldest Presbyterian Chapel in Northumberland. It now functions as a United Reformed Church. Outside is a plastic box full of water and snacks and walkers are invited to help themselves to sustenance in return for a donation. What a wonderful idea, I do hope it is not abused. Swooping swallows dart across the fields, these have been my favourite bird since I won a badly written book about swallows as an infants’ school prize. Lapwing and swifts are also in evidence. The hedgerows abound with a blue and purple comfrey, a variety that is new to me.

We are only a couple of miles from Wallington House and as I neglected to get my National Trust passport stamped yesterday, we decide to call in again for this purpose and also to use the facilities that are distinctly lacking in Thockrington and Bavington. As the weather is now almost seasonable, we take the riverside walk round the estate. This is great for flowers and birds and today’s tally includes a baby moorhen, Canada goslings, a goldcrest and even a glimpse of a retreating kingfisher. I have only seen a kingfisher a handful of times, the only disappointment was that this and the gold crest were not photographable.

There is an antiques ‘emporium’ near the campsite. There should be a government health warning about such things. Do we buy beautiful china, furniture or jewellery? No. Our idea of holiday souvenirs include a helmet, two small horn beakers and a substantial pewter mug to add to the stuffed rat that we purchased in Eyemouth, well they are tax deductible.

Well, dear readers this concludes the holiday, thanks for travelling along. Ramblings about my weird historical life will resume shortly, although I am about to enter that black hole that is the job I must not mention. Said job, family visits and other work will keep me from ‘normal’ life for a while. What exactly is ‘normal life’?

Dodging the Weather Again

Here, I am stepping in the footsteps of my ancestors, the Hogg family. We start by revisiting St Mary’s, Morpeth, which was closed on my last visit and proved to be so again this time. Given the size of the graveyard, there is no hope of locating the three family graves that I know are here, especially as they probably don’t have marker. There is an address for a ‘parish office’ about a mile away that is theoretically open. We drive off there but only have a road name and not a number. None of the houses or bungalows in the road look remotely like a parish office and no one available to ask seems to have heard of a church, let alone a parish office. We give up and have a quick walk round Morpeth. I am fascinated by the courts that hide behind the main streets and which were once the homes of my ancestors.

440 Wallington House Central Hall 1 June 2016Scotland is apparently bathed in sunshine. Typical, here we have drizzle and falling temperatures. Time for another National Trust property near you visit, this time to Wallington House near the weirdly named Cambo. The house was built for William Blackett in 1688 and then passed into the Trevelyan family, who, as the name suggests, originated in Cornwall. The most notable feature of this house is a central courtyard, which was covered over in the 1850s and decorated with murals depicting the history of Northumberland, for which the artist, William Bell, was paid £100 a panel. We are supposed to spot stuffed squirrels in the various rooms. I clearly need a two year old with me for this. Mind you I was not helped by the sample squirrels being three times the size of the hidden ones. There is a group called Robson’s Choice playing the Northumbrian pipes in the hall. These are very different from Scottish bagpipes and are much more suited to an indoor performance. They are not blown but the air is injected by squeezing bellows strapped to the elbow. My favourite features are once again the kitchen and also a series of photographs of former servants that are on display as part of a ‘Silent Voices’ project.

As we leave, the custodian asks if we are going to look round the gardens. Has she stepped outside lately? We have brought clothes suitable for northern summers but they are seriously inadequate for what the weather has thrown at us on this trip.

Across the Border Again and a Lesson in Hydraulics

So yet again we cross the border and are on the doorstep of Eyemouth World of Boats as it opens. A lovely lady directs us on a short drive to the storage sheds. She makes no mention of ostriches, perhaps I misunderstood. She had said that she was unable to locate the boat we were interested in but when we provide a few more details (like giving her the correct name) we are in luck. I can see why this is a health and safety nightmare. Someone has removed the steps up to a three foot high platform on which most of the boats are stored. Undaunted, we scramble up on the platform and are able to see the Flying Foam. Ironically she was on display at World of Boats until last year when she was moved to make room for the whaler.

We manage to get back in order to move the van at the approved time and head for a site near Alnwick, which we are learning to call ‘Annick’, so that we sound like locals. We have been to this site before (see archive posts for October 2012 for that visit) and we are on the adjacent pitch to the one that we occupied on that occasion. Unusually, I have planned no itinerary for this part of the holiday. The weather is still demanding an inside venue so it is a case of looking for a National Trust property near us. This turns out to be Cragside, near Rothbury. We encounter a first at a National Trust property, we have to queue to get in. The house has been subject to several extensions and is a distinctly strange shape. The imposing Victorian house was the home of the Armstrong (later Watson-Armstrong) family. William George Armstrong, was an engineer who specialised in hydraulics, meaning that there are various gadgets in the house. Cragside was the first house in world to be lit by electricity that had been generated by water power. He also installed a hydraulic lift in the 1870s.

Unusually, there are decorative tiles on the walls, up to dado rail height, on all floors. There is a very interesting kitchen, with high ceilings and a mechanical jack to turn the joints of meat. There is an over-the-top chimney breast in the drawing room, probably installed to impress the future Edward VII, who visited with his wife and children in 1884. There is also an exhibition about the local businessman, David Dippie Dixon, who, amongst other things, was in charge of the Northern Picture Puzzle Exchange. These were not the lobed jigsaw pieces that we are used to but interlocking, push-fit puzzles.

438 Cragside Rhododendrons 31 May 2016Cragside has plenty of opportunities for outside exploration, with gardens and extensive grounds. Given the temperature, we opt for driving along the six mile estate drive, which commences by driving under an arch through the house. This is obviously the right time for a visit as the rhododendron lined woodland paths are spectacular. It is a shame that we have neither the time, energy, or the warmth, to explore on foot. Home then via a quick shopping stop at Rothbury.

Across the Border

It is ten degrees as we leave Scotland. Arriving in England, it might be a little warmer but there is a thick mist. Too late we realise that the earliest entry on the site at Berwick on Tweed is not midday but 1.00pm. We arrive at 12.10pm and are third in the queue. There is not much room for queuing so our arrival effectively blocks the exit, meaning that no one can get a vehicle, much less a caravan, in or out. The harassed warden arrives, pointing out that we are all early. She has no option but to let at least one of us through the barrier. In the end she kindly allows us all on site. Having set up we return to Scotland. The sole reason for us stopping here is to see a Bucks ledge boat that is currently owned by World of Boats in Eyemouth. This small west country fishing boat is carvel constructed in a style that is unique to Bucks Mills and it belonged to a member of the Braund family. We arrive in a very chilly Eyemouth and locate World of Boats. We pay our modest entrance fee and converse with the very chatty custodian who explains all about their new acquired whaler. World of Boats own over 400 boats from across the globe. Unfortunately, 395 of them are not on display, including, inevitably, the Bucks ledge boat. On enquiring we learn that they are off site in the ostrich sheds. The ostrich sheds? These are not open to the public on the grounds of health and safety as the boats are stored on racks. Illogically, we can however view these if accompanied by a custodian. I assume that said custodian is briefed to catch any boat that looks likely to land on our heads. There will be someone who can take us tomorrow. In theory we are not available tomorrow as we have to be off site and heading south in the morning. We decide however that, by dint of arriving as the museum opens, we can just fit in a quick trip to the ostrich sheds before we leave.

Our boatless excursion leaves us with an afternoon free, so we cast about for something to do in Eyemouth, ideally something indoors, so not the thrilling trip in a speed boat that is on offer. There is a large yellow flag saying ‘house open’ and signs to Gunsgreen House, so we give that a try. Although this is not a venue that we can enter free of charge on the strength of our memberships, it has the advantage of being only hundreds of yards from World of Boats. The name Gunsgreen probably dates from the time when soldiers from nearby forts practiced in this area. The house, designed by John Adam, was built for John Nisbet in 1753. Nisbet was a local merchant who was also involved in organised smuggling on a very large scale. This was not usual on the east coast, especially after the Union of the Crowns, in 1707, imposed the crippling English taxes on Scotland. The nearest customs house was a three hour ride away at Dunbar, so Eyemouth was an ideal spot. An interesting aside: Dunbar Kirk Sessions reveal that, in the 1730s, Nisbet had been in trouble for an association with servant girls.

429 View from Berwick site 30 May 2016The main product that was smuggled was tea, which in Nisbet’s time attracted 119% tax. The house includes a hidden chute where large quantities of tea could be stored, a hidey hole under the floorboards, capable of concealing three men and warren like cellars, where our tour began. The top floors were not finished for twenty years, by which time a tenant, John Stewart, was in residence. The house was sold to rival merchant and smuggler, Alexander Robertson, to pay debts and then passed to the Home family. From 1906-1965 the house was run as a guest house by the Dougals. It then did time as a clubhouse for golfers and was finally acquired for restoration by the trust in 1998. In fact very little had been altered by the succession of owners. Pleased with our choice of ‘bonus’ visit, we return to Berwick Seaview site, which is by then living up to its name.

Edinburgh and an Encounter with the Earl of Moray

Despite not being the greatest fans of cities, we feel we do have to spend time in Edinburgh and today’s the day. Unfortunately, as we discovered yesterday, it is also the day of the Edinburgh Marathon but we hope that this won’t cause too many problems. We feel that we are unlikely to be mistaken for competitors. There is a half-hourly minibus service from the site into the city. You appear to just queue up for this. I am not daft, I can work out that if all of the 400 or so people on the site want to get on a 16 seater minibus at  the same time, we may be unlucky. Obviously we need to be at the front of the queue. We plan to catch the first bus at 9.30am. Left to me I’d have been there at 8.00am but I am restrained until 9.10am. We are the only people waiting. By the time it gets to 9.25am I am feeling that I would be comforted if there were some other people in the queue, as reassurance that a) we are waiting in the right place and b) we weren’t supposed to ring up and request the minibus. 9.30am and we (and no-one else) board the vehicle for the city centre.

We walk along Prince’s Street and through the beautiful Prince’s Gardens, making our way up and it certainly is up, to Edinburgh Castle. Yet again our English Heritage membership comes in handy, gaining us free entry. We join a guided tour in a group which includes Americans, Australians, Germans and Japanese. Our leader is Laura, whose delivery is very amusing and we learn of the castle’s history. This site has been occupied for 3000 years but the earliest remains are 900 years old. It has been used continuously, at times as a royal residence, a seat of Parliament and it is still a working garrison. At 400 feet above sea level the castle dominates the city and it is in an ideal defensive position. Laura comments on the historical inaccuracies of Braveheart – Wallace was a rich lowlander and not a kilt-wearing peasant a la Mel Gibson.

416 Edinburgh Castle 29 May 2016The weather is much better today. Not as much better as some of the locals, with their bare chests and shorts, are implying; I still have my coat and jumper on. We can at least see the view over the Firth of Forth as the mist has lifted. The castle fire a cannon at 1pm daily, except Sundays, so we shall miss that. St Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest part of the castle. It was built in memory of Margaret, the mother of David I. It is very tiny and although it is still used for weddings, you are limited to 25 guests. After our tour we wait for an excellent presentation by an historical interpreter, representing Sir Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray who, in 1314, was charged with recapturing the castle from English occupation. It was one of three castles in English hands at the time. Roxborough was re-taken by men disguised as cows. Randolph, whose half uncle was Robert the Bruce, climbed the rock using a secret path revealed to him by the son of a former castle governor and got inside the castle with thirty men, whilst others created a diversion at the gates, so the castle was recaptured from inside. It is great to chat to the interpreter and try his weaponry. The chain mail is seriously heavy and the full face helmet certainly restricts the field of vision. He has a fiendish looking mace, which was designed for use by churchmen who were not allowed to let blood, although bashing people over the head was fine!

We queue for a considerable time to see the Scottish crown jewels. The sceptre, sword and crown were first used together for the coronation of the infant Mary Queen of Scots in 1543. These had to be hidden from Cromwell’s troops and somehow went missing from 1707-1818. We also see the Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, which has been used in coronation ceremonies for centuries. It was ‘acquired’ from the Scots by Edward I and taken to England. In 1950, four students stole it and broke it in the process, after four months they abandoned it at Abroath as a political protest. It was returned to England until 1996 when it was finally given back to the Scots on the proviso that it can be borrowed for future coronations. A quick look through the royal apartments and then off to view the Great Hall, with its impressive hammer beam roof and vast collection of armour and armaments. We also tour the Scottish war memorial that commemorates nearly 150,000 Scottish war dead.

By this time we have been on our feet for 2½ hours so decide to invest in the hop on hop off open-top city tour bus. We don’t actually do any hopping but make nearly two complete circuits, once listening to the standard commentary and once to a Horrible Histories version. The latter makes much of the connection with Burke and Hare.  We are warned to beware of the tram lines. We must not stand on the seats or take ‘anything lengthy’ on the top deck. The examples given are fishing  rods and helium balloons. We have neither so we are fine. Edinburgh’s contribution to medicine is mentioned. It is home to the oldest College of Surgeons, founded in 1505. We stop at the grass market, where sales of grass for animal feed, as well as other produce, have been held since 1477; it was also the site of the gallows. Now it is a trendy area with cafés and outside eating spaces. Being Scotland, these are full because the sun is out, despite the piercing wind. We see the back of the Greyfriars Bobby statute, commemorating the dog who held a vigil on his dead master’s grave for fourteen years. The Royal Mile (actually a Scottish mile so longer than ours) links the castle to Holyrood House, which comes next along with Holyrood Park, the latter is the largest royal park in Britain. Arthur’s Seat towers 800 feet above us. Several Edinburgh streets are actually bridges, not over rivers but linking areas of higher ground. Most of the streets in the new, planned, city have Hanoverian inspired names. The city is the largest urban world heritage site in the world. We see our first pipers of this Scottish trip.

The only evidence of the marathon was some rubbish and a few abandoned traffic cones. We are only half an hour early for the first return minibus trip of the day and we are the only passengers. This is our final full day in Scotland but the holiday is not quite over.